Queen Elizabeth II may be getting older, but she’s barely slowing down. The Queen celebrated her 87th birthday on April 21 with one of her favorite activities: watching horse races at Newbury Racecourse. If you’re in the UK this summer, watch for a more formal public birthday celebration in London with an annual parade called the Trooping of the Colour on June 15.
For this very busy monarch, a birthday means a break from a very hectic schedule. One of the Queen’s responsibilities: making sure her estates are running smoothly. They are open to the public, as are many other former and current royal residences in the UK (admission proceeds help the royal family maintain the properties).
If you want a taste of royal life, here’s how to see the Queen’s homes for yourself. Note: It’s a good idea to book tickets online in advance, since tours fill up quickly.
Buckingham Palace is the royal family’s official headquarters. The Queen spends many of her days and nights in this sprawling London complex. King George III acquired the former home of the Duke of Buckingham as a family house. George IV had it enlarged, adding wings that give the building its distinctive U shape and vast interior courtyard. Later generations added their own touches.
A number of palace rooms are open for tours during the summer. The State Rooms are ornately decorated in accordance with their main purpose: a place for the Queen to receive visitors. The Royal Mews houses official royal transportation, both animal and vehicle, in stables and garages. A (privately funded) £20-million expansion of the Queen’s Gallery, completed in 2002, was the biggest addition to the castle in 150 years. The gallery houses permanent and rotating art collections.
From July 27 through September 29, the “royal day out at Buckingham Palace” package includes admission to the State Rooms, the Royal Mews and The Queen’s Gallery (£33.25, or about $50). Other combinations, such as garden tours, are also options.
The world’s largest inhabited castle, Windsor Castle is one of the Queen’s official residences (her flag flies from a round tower when she’s there). She spends some her weekends and a full month around Easter at this grand home just west of London.
Only a few invited guests have dinner, attend a reception or stay the night. But some parts of the castle are open to the public, including State Apartments, the Drawings Gallery, Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House and St George’s Chapel. Through June 9, an exhibit, “The Queen: Portraits of a Monarch,” showcases royal portraits by artists ranging from Cecil Beaton to Andy Warhol.
Admission for adults is £17.75 (about $27). Check in advance to make sure the rooms you want to see will be open on the day you want to go. Since there is no parking at the castle, it’s easiest to get there by taking a National Rail train to the Windsor station (the castle is within walking distance).
When the Queen wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, she heads to Sandringham, the royal family’s country estate in eastern England.
Its lush gardens, deep forests and active farms make it a bit like the sort of upper-class estate portrayed in “Downton Abbey.” Farmers, foresters, gamekeepers and gardeners still make their living here under the guidance of the Queen’s husband, Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
Sandringham House, gardens and a museum are open to the public from March 30 to November 3 (£12 for adults), except for the last week in July. While it’s not directly accessible by train, you can get there without a car by taking a train to the village of Kings Lynn, about two hours north of London, and then a local bus the 6 miles to Sandringham.
Palace of Holyroodhouse
The British royal family has long spent parts of the summer in the cooler temperatures up north in Scotland. In early July, the Queen takes residence at Holyroodhouse for a week.
According to the official website, when the Queen arrives, “the Palace forecourt is transformed into a crowded and colourful parade ground, where 700 guests stand to watch the enactment of an ancient ceremony, the Presentation of the Keys of the City of Edinburgh. On her arrival in the forecourt, The Queen is presented with a red-velvet cushion, on which rests the great key of the city.”
The palace is open for tours daily (£11, or about $17, for adults). While tours at Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle can take up to four hours, this one is shorter at about an hour. Since the palace sits at one end of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s historic main street, making it easy to combine a palace tour with a walk down this bustling stone street and perhaps a visit to the famous Edinburgh Castle at the other end of the mile.
The royal family often spends leisure time at Balmoral Castle, north of Edinburgh in the hilly landscape of the Royal Deeside area. The region has long been, and still is, a recreational paradise for both the royal family and regular people. Like Sandringham, Balmoral is a working estate the royal family runs with both the local economy and sustainability in mind.
Balmoral is open to visitors this year from March 31 to July 31 (members of the royal family spend much of August and September here). A tour includes the gardens and the biggest room in the castle, the ballroom (£10, or $16, for adults). The other rooms are private living quarters and not open to the public.
by Christy Karras